EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — If you think the Eagles’ coming back from the depths of their December beginning to win four straight games and clinch the division is as good as it gets, unfortunately you’re probably right.
It would be nice to believe otherwise, and, until next weekend, that’s an acceptable way for the team and the fan base to approach life. After all, the Eagles were touched by magic two seasons ago, and why can’t a little of that dust still be floating around the franchise?
That’s possible, of course, just as it was possible for the Eagles to win on Sunday evening despite entering the fourth quarter with the game tied and their entire postseason hopes hanging in the balance of the final 15 minutes. It was largely possible this time because they were playing the New York Giants, who finished the season 4-12, and who helped the cause by unraveling in this last quarter of the regular season.
Understand, that’s taking nothing away from the resolve the Eagles showed in hanging around doggedly until the Giants made their fatal error. That occurred when the rookie quarterback fumbled a snap and had the ball swatted loose as he picked it up. The Eagles recovered just two yards away from the touchdown that would all but seal the game.
But it took that fatal error by the other team to decide things in the rain and the cold at MetLife Stadium as their chances had dwindled to just those last minutes period. They made the most of their opportunity and that is why the Eagles are the champions of the NFC East. They got commemorative hats and danced in the locker room and the tension of the last month fell to the locker room floor at their feet.
“It feels great, obviously,” coach Doug Pederson said. “I remember back in ’17 when we were the number one seed, and we were the worst number one seed. We didn’t have a shot. Now, we’re a division winner, the fourth seed, and probably still don’t have a shot, but that’s OK. Everybody’s 0-0, and that’s what we focus on.”
If you can hear the underdog chorus starting to bark softly as Pederson plays the no-one-believes-in-us card, just wait until next weekend. The pack will be in full throat by then, and who can blame him for trying it again. That 2017-18 run that began without a starting quarterback and ended with a Super Bowl win is a handy reference for the whole team.
He’s right in many ways. Starting with a home game in the wild-card round, it won’t matter that their 9-7 record is the most modest of the eight NFL division winners. It won’t matter that the NFC East was a poor collection at best. It won’t matter how the Eagles got there, or to whom they lost along the way, or whatever their season lacked on style points.
“We’re going to lose in the first round, that’s what everybody’s going to say,” Brandon Graham said after the game. “But we got a bunch of guys who will use that as motivation.”
The dog masks and the camaraderie will only go so far, however. What will matter in the end is if the Eagles don’t have a roster that is healthy enough to meet the standard of playoff-caliber football.
December wins against a succession of lesser opponents do not necessarily lead to January wins against playoff teams. That doesn’t take away from the December wins. What the Eagles have done is remarkable, if only because of the players who have contributed to the accomplishment.
At one point Sunday evening — with running back Miles Sanders out with an ankle injury, Zach Ertz not in uniform, and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and Jordan Howard active but limited by previous injuries — the skill-position players on offense were Dallas Goedert, Boston Scott, Robert Davis, Greg Ward, Joshua Perkins and Deontay Burnett. Oh, and right guard Brandon Brooks gone from the game, replaced by Matt Pryor.
Until very recently, with the exception of Goedert, all of them were inactive, on the practice squad, or not on the team. A lot has been asked of the replacements and they have come through, or come through well enough to secure two late wins over the Giants, a comeback win against the Redskins, and a home win against the Cowboys.
It wasn’t known after Sunday’s game the extent of the injuries to Sanders and Brooks, but either would be another substantial loss piled upon the heap of misfortune this season.
“In the back of my mind, it did cross my mind, ‘Man, when do we catch a break?’ So many injuries,” Pederson said. “But what I love about this football team is how we’ve stuck together through the ups and the downs and the injuries. It put us in a position to win the NFC East and hopefully there is a lot of football left.”
As the celebration took place in the locker room, the players donned shirts that read, “The East is Not Enough.” In other locker rooms, seven other teams have gotten their own shirts. All of their chances in the postseason, like the compass points of their divisions, are at the whim of the four winds. Being good helps, of course,
"Generally, the better team wins,” center Jason Kelce said, “and we’re playing pretty well right now.”
But are they good enough for the tests ahead of them? The Eagles will have to outplay not just the opponent but their own roster for that to be true.
It is a battle rarely won, but the dogs of January are already growling.